Friday, August 01, 2008

Solicitors accused of overcharging clients to fatten profits in wake of legal industry slowdown

More From Peter Cherbi's A Diary of Injustice in Scotland as the industry wide slowdown starts affecting the way fees to clients are .... miscalculated upwards ..

There is little doubt we are in a recession, and amid falling house prices, falling pay packets, rising energy bills and rising unemployment, the outlook is certainly not a rosy one for everybody and even Scotland's multi billion pound legal services market, controlled exclusively by the Law Society of Scotland is now experiencing problems, with the likelihood of job losses and hardship along with the rest of us.

However, while the Law Society of Scotland last week issued a Press Release on the subject of the current poor economic climate affecting lawyers, citing its concerns over redundancies and problems in the legal sector, there was a marked reluctance to talk about lawyers hiking up their fees for legal work which remains markedly poor in competence or honesty.

Of course, when industries feel the pinch, they put the bills up. British Gas just did that, upping the cost of your fuel bills by a whopping 35% ... and no doubt petrol will be going up again soon too .. putting the squeeze on your pockets along with the cost of everything else we all consume.

There should therefore be little surprise to you that lawyers have decided to hike their own legal fees by (in some cases) a whopping 40% on top of the £1.2billion they are already making from clients, so its now the turn of consumers to get hit with large legal bills too …

So, have you recently been charged £3,500 from a solicitor for a little work which might have only been £1,050 ?, because that is now happening to clients all over Scotland .

Time perhaps to challenge your solicitors fees just as many have challenged Bank fees and more unacceptable charges for less than adequate service …

Bill Aitken MSP : Scots Legal Services market worth £1.2billion … but that's not enough for some as lawyers fees now hit your roof !

As you can see from the above video, it was only a few months ago that Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and others so fond of solicitors at the expense of consumers, stood up in the Scottish Parliament and toasted the multi billion pound monopolistic legal services industry in Scotland controlled by the Law Society of Scotland, so why now should some in the legal world feel they have to hike up the cost of their work for clients, which is still mostly poor and lacking in standards.

Well, for one thing, property prices are down, quite a bit, as are house sales, which rake in lots of money for solicitors in legal fees, so clients must be hit, and hit hard on other kinds of legal work now to make up for the shortfall.After all, keeping up the family, the three houses, the five cars and other wee bits on the side must be passed onto unsuspecting clients, and if you can’t pay, your house and possessions will do nicely.

There are certainly a few unsuspecting clients by the looks of things as some fee notes I saw earlier this week showed solicitors charging clients for work done while they were actually receiving legal aid, and settlements in long drawn out cases being withheld by legal firms, while they fiddle up fee notes of extortionate proportions, for ultimately achieving nothing .. just to steal the settlements in their entirety for themselves, the client ultimately getting nothing … not a penny …

In one case brought to my attention, concerning a long running land dispute, a family who employed one of Edinburgh's top legal firms, have ultimately been hounded out by their landlord, yet they have received a large settlement to ensure their departure.

Unfortunately for that family in the case I refer to, their 'big name' Edinburgh lawyers have now taken the entire agreed settlement while they do some creative accounting for work done, which in reality wasn't much, if anything at all.

A small, but important detail to the case is the family concerned were on legal aid the whole time … but all the while, that ‘big name’ Edinburgh legal firm were demanding additional private cash payments … while apparently not disclosing such demands & payments to the Legal Aid Board, in what now seems to be a typical practice to make up for shortfalls in other areas of business.

But what will the Scottish Legal Aid Board think .. or do ? if they find out this 'big name' Edinburgh legal firm was demanding money from the clients while also taking from the legal aid purse .... as so many legal firms seem to be doing these days ...

Of course, you don't really get to find out much about lawyers fees, because the legal profession sets its own fees, and is accountable to no one in that respect.

Yes, lawyers set their own fees. There is no independent body to adjudicate on what lawyers can and cannot charge for their services. The Law Society of Scotland basically gives the go ahead for lawyers to charge what they want, and if you don't like it, when faced with a large account you cannot pay, your house will do nicely, if not your life.

Oh yes .. there is the not so often used "taxation of fees" where if you are unhappy with the fees charged by your solicitor in litigation which may have ended up in the Court of Session, you can apply to the "Auditor of the Court of Session" to have your account 'independently scrutinised', but here's a surprise for you - the Auditor of the Court of Session is a member of the Law Society of Scotland, so, in Scotland’s most important courtroom, there is no independent scrutiny of lawyers fees.

The present Auditor of the Court of Session is Mr Neil J Crichton, who was appointed to his position in December 1997, over 11 years ago and will be retiring on 28 September 2008. The following release from the then Scottish Executive lists Mr Crichton’s appointment :

Appointment of Auditor of the Court of Session



The Secretary of State has appointed Mr Neil J Crichton to be Auditor of the Court of Session on the retirement of Mr J Haldane Tait on March 31, 1998. Mr Crichton is currently senior partner in the Edinburgh firm of Aitken Nairn WS.


The Auditor of the Court of Session is a statutory appointment made by the Secretary of State on the nomination of the Lord Advocate. The main duty of the Auditor is, on remit from the Court, to tax accounts of expenses incurred in civil litigation and fix the remuneration of the receivers and liquidators. He also taxes accounts which the Scottish Legal Aid Board are unable to agree with the Solicitor and/or Counsel acting for a legally-assisted client in a Court of Session case.

News Release - 1975/97 Date December 9, 1997

It is important to note the "Auditor of the Court of Session" is not accountable to the Scottish Court Service in terms of if a complaint is filed against his decisions on fees.

The Auditor of the Court is in fact, a practicing solicitor, a member of the Law Society of Scotland.

It is a fact that all solicitors, and members of the Law Society of Scotland must also keep their indemnity insurance payments to the same Master Insurance Policy which itself has been brought into such disrepute concerning concocted fee notes over negligent legal service for many years, many of such cases surfacing in the media.

So, if you have a complaint about a huge bill from a solicitor which involves work in the Court of Session, and which is wholly unjustified, you can take it to taxation, which means giving it to the Auditor of the Court of Session.

However, if you remain unsatisfied with the Auditor of the Court of Session's findings, you cannot complain to the Scottish Courts Service, because the Auditor of the Court of Session does not fall within the remit of the SCS, the Auditor falls within the remit of the Law Society of Scotland to whom you must make a complaint if you remain dissatisfied with the Auditor’s decision in your case.

So, bearing in mind all of the above, is it safe now, in these times of required and expected reforms to Scotland's woefully poor legal services market, to allow another solicitor, and member of the Law Society of Scotland, the power of auditing solicitors legal fees in Scotland’s highest court, when there are disputes from clients ?

Surely it should now be the case that, with the measure of independent regulation brought in with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, there should be a new system of independent scrutiny of solicitors fees where clients feel they are unexplainably and unjustifiably high.

Perhaps now is the time to bring in an independent and accountable panel of auditors who are not linked to the legal profession, but are able to hear cases of client challenge to exorbitant legal fees and independently adjudicate on what are ever spiraling costs of legal services in the current solicitor monopolised Scottish legal services market.

You can read more about the procedures for challenging fees from your solicitor in the Sheriff Courts here : Act of Sederunt (Solicitor and Client Accounts in the Sheriff Court) 1992

It is important to note that while all Sheriff Courts have an auditor of the court, not all are solicitors. There are three solicitors who are “Auditors of the Court’, based at Scotland’s three key courts – Glasgow, Aberdeen, and of course, the Court of Session in Edinburgh. The remaining auditor’s of court in the Sheriff Courts, are employed directly by the Scottish Courts Service.

You can find out more about the fees of the Court of Session here : The Court of Session etc. Fees Amendment Order 2007

You can find out more about “Taxation” at the Court of Session on the Auditor of the Court of Session’s website here : Taxation at the Court of Session

The Law Society of Scotland also reports on how you can challenge fees from your solicitors on their own website here : How to query a lawyers fee and get nowhere

The Law Society’s explanation of how to query solicitors fees begins with an uninspiring account of what they cannot do …

“The Law Society of Scotland does not have the power to consider the amount of fees charged by a solicitor but has responsibility in relation to considering the quality of service provided by the solicitor.”

Interestingly, the Law Society of Scotland leave out the fact the auditors of Scotland’s main courts, are actually members of the Law Society of Scotland, and that in effect, you have a solicitor adjudicating the fees of another solicitor, which is certainly not a model of independent scrutiny by any measure of the word.

It cannot be said the Law Society’s information on challenging solicitor’s fees inspires any degree of trust whatsoever, after the Law Society of Scotland has acted with such contempt against clients for decades when complaints have been made against not only crooked & negligent solicitors, but also those who on a regular basis, fiddle their legal fees to you, sky high.

Time for a much needed change on how solicitors fees are set and scrutinised, to ensure full and proper consumer protection from a money making system which currently runs itself without accountability to anyone.

My advice to readers : Faced with a high legal bill from your solicitor ? Publish it online, name the lawyer and the legal firm, and challenge the authenticity & accountability of their fees.

It’s now time to challenge those big legal bills from lawyers just as people have successfully challenged extortionate bank charges which have been taking place for years against consumers. Remember – it’s your money … and no one is unjustly entitled to it.

Injustice Scotland’s campaign to reclaim high legal charges :

Recover your money from lawyers extortionate charges campaign

Just for reference, here is the Law Society’s Press Release, which was passed onto me by a journalist who could hardly stop laughing at the prospect of a few lawyers losing their jobs …

There isn’t much thought about clients in the Law Society’s Press Release which focuses on the hardship of lawyers … but of course, hiking the fee notes to clients might help a few retain their jobs and luxuries at your expense …


Henry Robson, deputy chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Legal firms, like many other businesses in Scotland, are feeling the effects of the current economic climate.

“The Law Society is monitoring the situation and while at present relatively few solicitors have informed us of being made redundant, we have had reports of support staff from firms across the country having lost their jobs, which is a real concern.

“The professional practice department is giving help and advice to solicitors who may yet be faced with losing their job or equally to solicitor employers who have never before been in the position of having to make people redundant.

The Law Society is just one of many organizations to be affected by the uncertainty of the property market and we have decided to delay plans to relocate.

“The legal profession is not only being affected by the economic situation, but also by changes in legislation. For example, the slowdown has come at a time when summary justice reforms are having a negative impact on the volume of criminal legal aid work.”

The Law Society’s president, Richard Henderson, has written to Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to raise concerns about the impact on the profession of the current economic downturn and there has also been a meeting with Kenny MacAskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice, to make strong representations about the potential detrimental effects of the plans to introduce Home Reports in December.

The Law Society is working on a number of initiatives to support solicitors, including holding a conference to provide information and business advice specifically for high street firms. The charity LawCare can also offer advice and support to solicitors facing difficulties.

The Law Society’s education and training department is also offering support to those concerned about traineeships.

Mr Robson added: “As the representative body for solicitors, and working closely with paralegal colleagues, we share the profession's concerns and will continue to monitor the situation closely and provide support to our members."


so … lawyers will get all the help they need from the Law Society .. but clients will have to pay for it through the nose … inspiration to avoid using a solicitor who is a member of the Law Society of Scotland and a good argument again, to open up Scotland’s legal services market much quicker than Mr MacAskill seems to be willing to do …

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